Thursday, April 7, 2011

Letting God Out of Hell

In Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary, Catherine Z. Elgin maps a constructivist alternative to the standard Anglo-American conception of philosophy's problematic. Under the standard conception, unless answers to philosophical questions are absolute, they are arbitrary. Unless a philosophy is grounded in determinate, agent-neutral facts, it is right only relative to a perspective that cannot in the end be justified. Elgin charts a course between the two poles, showing how fact and value intertwine, where art and science intersect.
--the publisher's description on the dust jacket
Yesterday, I started a blogpost with a quote from Dr. Elgin, one of the world's pre-eminent philosophers.  Today, I'm doing the same in order to look with you at the problem of pre-dominant and dominating tendencies in male logic. 

The tendencies are to insist on avoiding ambiguities and to demand that what is observed by the observer by boxed up into categories and classifications on the hierarchical map of knowledge.  Many Bible readers get stuck in this mode.  Many bloggers and tweeters have tended to worry with whether Rob Bell's book's hell is a universalist's hell or whether universalist doctrine is heresy.  "It's either a universalist book or it's not."  "It's either heresy or it's not."  "There are either absolute and sensible answers to be insisted on here or all we're left with is random, nonsensical, and arbitrary wishful thinking."

Male logic?, you might ask.  Why qualify it this way?  Why not just "the standard Anglo-American conception of philosophy's problematic"?  Are you saying Anglo-Americans are male dominant?

Well, you don't even have to know that Aristotle coined the word and formalized the system of logic, by which he, a male, boxed up females as naturally inferior, even as botched males, as NOT males.  If you yourself are not male or if you're abused by another male who uses the binary on you, then you "know" the answer without even having to take a college class in logic.  Maybe for you like for me, it was your father, who gave you the experience of male logic.  Then reading how Nancy Mairs writes of the binary, then you get it:
In order to get what he wants, then, the father must have power to coerce those around him to meet his demands. To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object. The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false. . . . It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites. . . [in] a dimorphic world.
--Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer (page 41)

Let's come back to Mairs in a moment.  If God is like the patriarchy with this fundamental structuring of his world in splitting binary fashion, then -- follow the logic -- we on the other side may have hell to pay.

Suzanne has been writing a series, Blogging heaven and hell (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – and another I'll link to below).  She invited some of us to join in as she continued; she'd mentioned Sheol, then מְצוּלָה, and so I brought up Gei Hinnom as New Testament translator Willis Barnstone has had to deal with that hell.  The male binary logic, we might have noted right at that point, has a problem.  It has a decision to make.  If heaven is not hell and if not hell is heaven, then is Sheol NOT Gei Hinnom?  Well, it's not much of a problem if you read the reviewers protesting Rob Bell's book, because he does mention (they say) the various words for "hell" in the Bible.  (I've only tried to read one of Rob Bell's books, and didn't like it enough to continue, so I'm not sure I'm going to make it through this most recent one).  His book's critics are saying it doesn't matter that there are not-the-same words for hell since there's just one absolute hell, which is a place in opposition to the one absolute heaven (and never mind what Jesus said about many rooms or mansions in his father's house, which really must be the one heaven, and NOT the one hell.)  The whole line of argument here is Western logic, inherited from Aristotle. 

I get that because, when I was an undergraduate student, going to the same university where my father had graduated from, I took the same logic course from the exact same logic professor that my dad had had.  Dad was real interested, when he learned, to see whether I could achieve the same grade he'd made.  He made my taking the same course into a competition.  Either I would be as good as he was academically, or I would not.  And I've continued to be quite familiar with Aristotle, and with his logic, even academically, even to the point of defending a dissertation on the subject successfully.  My own point here is that we try to keep things abstract, in the realm of Truth, sort of impersonal, as if being in heaven and out of hell is something that depends on logic.  (If you're still reading but protesting, "Hey, stop rambling; get on with your point."  Then I'll just say, "I'm sorry."  And add this, "What if our ears are so attuned to western logic that we sometimes miss what's in the personal, what's in the narrative, what's in the stories of life, which the binary will lop out as "not much of a point" and, therefore, as "less than important"?)

Suzanne's most recent post (the 8th so far in her series) shows what Robin Parry's book The Evangelical Universalist does.  (This post, it's interesting to note, comes after Peter's dis-agreement "with Suzanne’s tentative universalist position." He nonetheless feels compelled to add:  "But I strongly agree with her that it is wrong to use threats of hell as a way to impose one’s will on others, in the church or in the home.")  Suzanne brings out the fact that Perry shows "that scripture passages disagree - we have scriptures on both sides of this debate."  In other words, even the statements of the Bible, taken as a canonical whole, present the reader with ambiguity.  The Bible teaches exclusivism; the Bible also teaches universalism.  Ambiguities.  (Avoid ambiguities, is what Aristotle taught his male only, elite only, Greek only, students.  Following him and his logic, Aristotle's students would not have liked the Bar-Bar-ous Bible.  And for the historical record, Aristotle said little that would make his students or any of us believe that he believed in hell.  Here, he departs from his teachers.  Maybe he saw the logical difficulties with abolute claims about the afterlife, which he could not box up so easily on his hierachical map of knowledge.)

Suzanne got me looking at and reading other books by Robin Parry.  One is Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate by Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge.  At, reviewer  makes this astute observation:
Ambiguity is the devil's volleyball, said former President of Yale, Kingman Brewster, Jr. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge's book, Universal Salvation? gives us a well matched game of back and forth with the theological hot potato that is at the heart of the book's "debate." While the writers in this volume are articulate and responsible in handling this (again) current hot topic among evangelicals, if there is one null theme the critical reader may pick up is that the debate is fueled, in part, by the inherent ambiguity of the concept in the biblical text that all sides claim for their points of view. Biblical ambiguity is the one reality few seem ready to confess when conceding an opponent's point on the issue.

Well, I'm not so sure "inherent" is a useful modifier of "ambiguity," but we can understand what this reviewer is saying.  We readers of the Bible do well to see the ambiguities in it as the writers of the Bible have written it.  Maybe the writers of the Bible, maybe its translators, intended to avoid ambiguities in their writings.  And yet, stories will often have unintended ambiguities.  It's pretty much Western or male-dominant logic that insists on ridding a text of its writer's ambiguities.  And Nancy Mairs has already suggested why men (and women using male logic) will so insist on the binary. 

So Catherine Elgin says there's more than just either the absolute or the arbitrary.  And Nancy Mairs does too.  Mairs says we can get beyond the either / or fix.  We can do this, she shows, with "woman's language," a delightful alternative to boxed-up male logic, to binary patriarchal structuring of language.  She calls it "women’s language, since women, for a variety of reasons, live in a polymorphic rather than a dimorphic world, a world in which the differentiation of self from other may never completely take place, in which multiple selves may engage multiply with the multiple desires of the creatures in it."  (And I've blogged elsewhere to call this the ironic but useful "feminist binary.")
In thinking about the Bible, then.  In thinking about God in the Bible. In talking about the hell of the God of the Bible.  There's more than just either the absolute or the arbitrary.  There's more than just a need for logic to really know, to really understand, to get it and then to live my real life.  There's thinking that meets the emotions, the head and the heart connected in such awareness.  And Nancy Mairs, if we'll listen to her and can read some of her writing, is most helpful. 

In her book, A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith, Mairs discusses her own "meta-noia," and for that reason alone the book is worth reading.  (I'd recommend reading it after reading some of her earlier books just to get the direction of some of the changes in her, in her thinking.)  This Lent, then, it may be worth our listening and thinking about giving up some of our binary thinking.  Maybe even some of our binary thinking about Hell.  Maybe we can let go and let God out of an absolute hell concept.

Maybe Nancy Mairs can help.  Here's a page from her book:

     Some people, troubled by ambiguity, collapse the world into just two categories, "good" and "eveil" (which too often means "everybody whose beliefs differ from my own"), and claim to know who or what belongs in each, a certitude that smacks of the sin of pride, of pretending to be "like God."  The trouble with this view of morality lies in its inflexibility.  Every group, defining its own beliefs and behaviors as good, righteous, even stamped with God's personal approval, has only the idea of an opposite with which to identify all who believe and behave differently.  They share the vision fo the Puritan Jonathan Edwards predicting Judgment Day:  "When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state, so exceedingly different from it!"  It is a closed system in which everybody, regardless of creed or practice, thinks in the same way.  When Muslim extremists point at America and scream, "You're the Great Satan and we have to blow you up," we shout back, "No, you're the Great Satan and we have to bomb your countries," for all the world like the fractious children who made God wish to have stopped with the elephants, only grown large and deadly.  No one dares step outside the good/evil paradigm and invent some altogether different structure for human interaction.  We could have helped to overturn any number of dictators if, instead of squandering billions of dollars on ordnance, we had bombarded their countries with butter, medications, and wireless devices; a healthy, well-fed, and well-informed populace is much less vulnerable to oppression.  If battles there must be, they can fight their own. 
     To our peril throughout the ages, dualism has been humanity's most prevalent mode of constructing the world, however.  Is it because we have two of everything?  If we grew three hands or three feet, would we think outside the binary box?  Fortunately, it is possible, without drastic evolutionary modification but with vigorous practice in discernment, to conceive the world otherwise:  not in terms of dyads--good opposed to evil, right opposed to wrong, you opposed to me--but more realistically and fluidly.  Those who can do so--and this includes not only Christians but practitioners of all faiths--make no judgments on God's behalf but pray for guidance in their own decisions and actions and then for mercy for all the times these fall short. 
     Any number of times when I've attended an Ash Wednesday service, the priest has observed, looking out across the overflowing chapel, that more people go to church on this day than on any other.  Neither the great festivals, Christmas and Easter, draw as many worshipers.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the second great penitential season in the liturgical year, and such high attendance attests to a fundamental human characteristic:  our preoccupation with wrongdoing and atonement.  Knowing ourselves to be sinners, we aren't satisfied simply to acknowledge our transgressions.  We want to do something about them.   People who envision God as a remote and fearsome judge may be motivated by the fear that they will be thrown into hell in punishment for breaking divine decrees too numerous to mention (there are more than six hundred such laws in the first five books of the Bible alone).  Those of us for whom God is a beloved presence manifest in everyone we meet, because we believe that God grieves our faults, seek to make amends to anyone we have injured.  Regardless of impetus, believers wolcome Lent as a period of contrition.


Kristen said...

Fascinating. Does Ms. Mairs take the next step and speak of "knowing good and evil" as the temptation that led to the Fall? Perhaps the Tree of Life (the complex, multi-faceted life of God) stands in contrast to the Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil in that the Tree we humans chose is about binary divisions and mental categories. If "knowing good and evil" makes us "like God," then perhaps our real problem is that our finite minds cannot appropriately handle divisions that the Infinite Mind understands in ways we cannot. We were meant to look at "good and evil" through the lens of the Tree of Life (sorry for the mixed metaphor, but I think it brings my point across). Instead we look through our own finitude, and what we see are binaries.

Perhaps the tendency of women to move outside these categories is that this has been her defense to being "ruled over" by men. Man sets the ruling categories; woman finds freedom in moving outside them. Perhaps this is one reason why it was women whom the Resurrected Christ first revealed Himself to. Women were to be the first heralds of the New Creation in which categories and binaries are erased: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free; there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ."

J. K. Gayle said...

Does Ms. Mairs take the next step and speak of "knowing good and evil" as the temptation that led to the Fall?

Well, as a matter of fact, Nancy Mairs does spend a considerable amount of ink on this very thing. She does discuss the "tree" and notes how "the story of Eve and Adam recapitulates the exile of all of us from an undifferentiated and paradisial infancy and our emergence into the moral world. The capacity to distinguis good from evil may render us, as the serpent hisses, 'like God'; but if so, the resemblance (and it is only a very limited resemblance) comes at a steep price." Mairs really is exploring here, and living, an un-convent-ional Catholic faith. And I really would suggest reading others of her memoirs before following her into these thoughts of "A Dynamic God." The narrative, I'd say, is important as any theological propositions or doctrines for Mairs. In "Voice Lessons" she describes early "academic" writing for her as selflifewriting. Many conventional Catholics or other persons of [Christian] faith might not easily find the ambiguities she does.

Thanks very much for your thoughts! "Man sets the ruling categories; woman finds freedom in moving outside them." And then you go on to quote the man, Paul. So it's an ability to find freedom, as woman does, that man can share, no?

John Radcliffe said...

I've pondered the Binary on another post on a different blog somewhere else.

Thinking about the Binary and the various blogs you’re not really blogging at, reminds me of the Scottish Presbyterian (yes, a man) who was shipwrecked on a desert Island. His eventual rescuers were puzzled when, as well as his house, there appeared to be not one but two church buildings. The man assured them that he was alone on the island. “Then why the two churches?” they asked. “Do you use them on alternate Sundays?” The man replied, “No, this is the one I attend every Sunday, while that is the one I don’t attend.”

J. K. Gayle said...

Funny John. And thank you as always for your comments. Soon I'll reply to your what you've pondered - "on another post on a different blog somewhere else" - in a way that your thoughtful pondering deserves.

for now, let me just quickly give two responses:

1) If I were your Scottish Presbyterian (and you sort of know me by now), then on my desert island there would be not one, not two, but several church buildings (un)attended. Haven't you regularly commented at at least three different blogs of mine?

2) Speaking of three, can we talk more about what Nancy Mairs helps us with? Let me quote again the middle paragraph of that full-page excerpt from above, again:

"To our peril throughout the ages, dualism has been humanity's most prevalent mode of constructing the world, however. Is it because we have two of everything? If we grew three hands or three feet, would we think outside the binary box? Fortunately, it is possible, without drastic evolutionary modification but with vigorous practice in discernment, to conceive the world otherwise: not in terms of dyads--good opposed to evil, right opposed to wrong, you opposed to me--but more realistically and fluidly. Those who can do so--and this includes not only Christians but practitioners of all faiths--make no judgments on God's behalf but pray for guidance in their own decisions and actions and then for mercy for all the times these fall short."

I'm starting to respond to your pondering, but only want to say this for the moment. Two of my friends, respectively, are a hermaphrodite and a transgendered woman. Numerous of my friends and acquaintances are gay men and lesbian women. There IS a time (now) when some consider these people gendered aberrants. There WAS a time (some centuries ago) when Aristotle considered all females of every species gendered aberrants. (Oh, Aristotle also taught that slaves were born slaves, that catamites were aberrant humans and so forth and so on.) So one might ask a monotheist, a Christian for example, how does God look at these people? In reply, the language is very, very important. Dominant males (like Aristotle) tend to use the binary because it others, because it maintains their power, it keeps the Other down and marginal. The logic is hugely important. So Christians employing the binary exclusively will tend, like Aristotle DID, to exclude persons NOT like themselves. Then we can ask how Jesus (or as Kristen points out, how Paul) would de-construct the male logic. Okay, I said I'd be quick, but I'll try to say more later. Feel free to comment any time. Thanks again.